Myths about Off Highway Vehicle Use

On January 20, 2017, Alberta Environment and Parks announced the boundaries for the new Castle  Provincial Park and the expanded boundaries for the Castle Wildland Provincial Park in southwest Alberta. A draft management plan was also presented for public review. That plan calls for the phase-out of off-highway vehicle use in the parks. This is one of the most controversial sections of the plan but people who are concerned about the fate of the fish, wildlife and natural beauty of that area realize such a phase-out is necessary if we are going to keep what we go to wild areas to enjoy.

Guest Blog: I’ve asked fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch to post here a piece he wrote on the subject of off-highway vehicles for the Alberta Wilderness Association’s Wildlands Advocate in August of 2016. Regular readers here will remember Lorne’s piece he posted here in 2015 about Alberta’s  fisheries: Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish-Alberta’s Fisheries Crisis.

Myths about Off Highway Vehicle Use
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Text and Photos Copyright © 2016

Myths can be widely held but represent false beliefs or ideas. They can become more powerful and compelling than reality, especially if repeated often enough, and never challenged. Many use myths to support a particular action or activity. Listening to Off Highway Vehicle users for some time provides a recurring set of statements that fall into the category of myths. These are the prevalent ones:

Myth 1. It’s only 1% (or 3%, 5%, 10%…) of OHV users that cause problems.
OHV Trails-Willow CreekReality: It is the constant, unrelenting traffic on trails (and off trails) not designed for OHV use that is the major contributor to erosion, stream sedimentation, wildlife disruption and loss of quiet recreation. That includes everyone who operates an OHV.

Myth 2. OHV users know how to operate their machines to minimize impacts and be good stewards.
Reality: The sheer amount of damage and problem areas in the form of excessive erosion, ruts, mud holes, trail widening, avoidance of bridges, collapsed stream banks, following stream courses and multiple trail development suggests anything but stewardship. Many operate their machines in ways to magnify the damage.

Myth 3. OHV use has no more impact than foot and horse use.
OHV issuesReality: The argument OHVs exert no more pressure on the soil surface than a hiker or a horseback rider disappears under the impacts of OHV speed, spinning tires, wider trails and traffic volume. The linear orientation of OHV traffic disrupts drainage patterns, capturing and redirecting flow with increased erosion.

Myth 4. Fish and wildlife populations are not harmed by OHV use.
Reality: Thoroughly researched, objective, scientific studies say otherwise. Noise, traffic intensity and frequency, trail density, incursions into critical areas and increased sediment deposition in streams negatively impact fish and wildlife populations and their habitats.

Myth 5. The solution to the problems of OHV use includes more and better designed trails with bridges over streams.
Reality: Linear density (the measurement of trail length/ landscape area) already exceeds critical thresholds for many fish and wildlife species; building more trails will significantly harm fish and wildlife populations, several of which are already designated as “threatened”. More trails will intersect or parallel watercourses and require more bridges. Bridges do not successfully deal with sediment from trails since it is the approaches to stream crossings that continue to erode under OHV use.

Myth 6. Use of OHVs is a traditional, family-oriented pursuit that brings Albertans closer to nature.
OHV bogReality: While OHVs provide opportunity to access nature, to drive through (or over) nature there is no conclusive evidence their use connects people with nature. OHV use is a pursuit where people substitute gas engines for natural locomotion and distance themselves from the landscape with speed, technology and an obstacle-course mentality. Most seems activity focused, more so than using the machines to reach a destination, from which a direct connection is made with the landscape by walking. Activities like making new trails, racing, getting stuck, hill climbing, mud bogging, trashing wetlands and splashing through (and up) streams seem inconsistent with an appreciation for nature.

The phenomenon of OHV use is less than two decades old in Alberta, given that statistics on OHV ownership indicate relatively few people owned such machines even 15 years ago. Only 6% of Albertans engage in motorized recreational activity; 67% of Albertans have a preference for non-motorized outdoor recreation. Demographics suggest OHV users are more likely to be younger, male and single than a family group.

Myth 7. Other land uses (like logging) are more destructive that anything done by OHV users.
Logging OHV issuesReality: Resource extraction industries have created much of the access used by OHV users and the failure of government agencies to effect trail closure and restoration has exacerbated the issues. However, OHV use has never been considered and dealt with as a land use, complete with policy and regulation. In deflecting criticism from the impacts of OHV use, users fail to recognize cumulative effects and their contribution. OHV use can delay and prevent effective restoration and extends the life span of industrial impacts.

Myth 8. Educating OHV users will solve the problems.

The mud OHVs create on trails often drains into streams where it impacts fish.

The mud OHVs create on trails often drains into streams where it impacts fish.

Reality: Education can be a tool for those that recognize the issues, want to change their behavior and don’t have a sense of entitlement to freely engage in destructive OHV activity. The education option assumes people want to be educated, that voluntary behavioral shifts are possible with no other inducements (like regulation and enforcement), that forums exist where OHV users can be educated and that all users can read and respond positively to signage.

Education is not a public relations exercise by OHV users to maintain the status quo; it is an endeavor to change attitudes and actions. Only a small percentage of OHV users are represented by an organization. Most users are beyond the influence of an organization and any educational initiative.

Studies indicate OHV users don’t want their use restricted, want fewer regulations, do not support user fees, enforcement and government involvement, and want to continue to pursue their recreation with less, not more impediments.

Myth 9. There is a recognition amongst OHV users of the impact of their activity.
One-Four, Allison CreekReality: OHV users become more conditioned to negative impacts over time, less sensitized to damage the activity creates, causing the detrimental effects of OHV activity to become less (not more) obvious and less (not more) concerning. It is a case of perceptual blindness, an inability (or unwillingness) to recognize and acknowledge the obvious.

Myth 10. OHV activity generates substantial economic benefits, especially to local communities.
Reality: While OHV dealers benefit from sales, there is no conclusive evidence local communities have enhanced and substantial economic activity because of OHV use.

Money spent on OHVs and their use is discretionary, unlike mortgage payments, grocery bills and taxes. If people don’t spend such money on OHVs the money isn’t lost, it is redirected somewhere else in the Alberta economy. Most of the money spent to purchase an OHV and accessories doesn’t linger in Alberta; it enriches corporations far from Alberta.

The assertion of economic benefits from OHV use always fails to account for costs, including more road maintenance, fire suppression, weed control, emergency services, medical expenses from injuries and loss of economic benefits from bona fide land uses like ranching, equestrian use and ecotourism. Nor do the “benefits” factor in enforcement costs, trail restoration, impacts on downstream water users and loss of biodiversity (including declining angling and hunting opportunity).

OHV activity also precludes other recreational pursuits and the associated economic benefits due to avoidance of areas by people seeking quiet recreation because of noise, real and perceived harassment, concerns of individual safety and loss of ecological integrity.

When our “enjoyment” of the landscape blinds us to the impairment occurring it is time to ask whether the activity is legitimate. Repeating the myths of OHV use, in the hope the messages will become convincing will require an unattainable magic. Substituting myth for fact isn’t viable and risks continuing the stereotyping of OHV users as uncaring, thoughtless and irresponsible. At its root, reality is consensual. When a group, like OHV users, makes up its mind what it is going to see, then sees it, it is a crowd delusion. OHV use will never, and should never, trump watershed protection, maintenance of fish and wildlife populations (especially threatened species) and quiet forms of recreation that reconnect people with nature.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at

Lorne has also posted a guest blog on why OHV users might not understand the damage they do, Tracks and Spoor.

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Are We Underutilizing Our Walleye?

[Note: The following was first published in the November 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

On arriving at the rural community hall, I saw the parking lot overflowing with pickups, cars and recreational vehicles. As expected, the hall was jammed with over 300 people seeking seats or just standing along the walls waiting for the proceedings to begin. Was this a wedding, funeral or dance? No, it was a meeting of anglers and other citizens concerned about the “Underutilized Fish Stocks in Northeast Alberta.” And the anger and frustration in the room was palatable.


Anglers came from far and wide to voice their concerns about the state of our fisheries.

If you have fished many lakes across Alberta in the last couple of decades, you’ve found most are extremely limited with regard to the number of walleye you can legally “take home for the frying pan.” Some lakes have zero catch-and-keep limits; others allow a limited number of fish to be caught and kept through a special licence draw system. Government fisheries biologists told us the walleye populations in these lakes had either collapsed or were near collapse and the restrictions were necessary to allow the populations to grow and produce a harvestable surplus again. So, we waited, believing the populations would come back within a few years. Five years turned into ten, 10 to 20, with no significant changes to the restrictions.

In the meantime, anglers have noticed the numbers of walleye they’ve caught and released have increased in many of these lakes. As well, they’ve noticed the pike in the lakes are thinner, and the populations of other species such as white fish, yellow perch and forage fish have seemingly declined. In other words, there appears to be a harvestable surplus of walleye in these lakes, and a more liberal walleye harvest regime might be warranted if just to improve the overall health of all the fish species in the lakes. So, why hasn’t the government allowed more fish to be taken from these lakes?

That was the question the people wanted answered at the meeting held on September 7th at the Lac Bellevue Community Hall south of St. Paul. Unlike other public meetings about fisheries or wildlife management I’ve attended, the government did not organize this one. Ray Makowecki, a veteran fisheries biologist and Fish Chair for Zone 5 of the Alberta Fish and Game Association, organized the meeting. Ray Danyluk, a former Progressive Conservative Member of the Alberta Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Lac La Biche-St. Paul, moderated the meeting. Although there were current politicians in the room (three Wildrose MLAs, four municipal mayors and reeves), they only spoke briefly at the end of the meeting. Also in the room were David Park, Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) Section Head of Fisheries Management Policy, and Jordan Walker, Resource Manager for AEP’s Lower Athabasca Region. However, neither spoke by previous agreement. This meeting was for the anglers to express their concerns, and Park and Walker were there to listen.


Ray Makowecki described how fish stocks are assessed and what might be the problems.

Makowecki started the meeting with a presentation on how fish stocks are assessed in the province and what he perceived might be the problem with current fisheries management policy in Alberta. The meeting was then opened to anyone in the room who wanted to speak about what they were seeing on the lakes they fished and possible solutions. A wide variety of anglers supported the contention that walleye needed to be harvested in many of the lakes in the northeast. Many expressed their frustration with the Alberta government’s lack of response to their concerns. Danyluk kept the meeting on track and ensured each speaker’s main points were recorded correctly.

Makowecki spent much of his presentation on the Fall Walleye Index Netting (FWIN) program that AEP uses to determine the walleye status in a lake. Biologists set gill nets of varying mesh sizes in the lake for 24 hours. The nets are pulled and the fish caught are counted and measured, assessing fish abundance, size and age-class distribution, sex ratio, growth and overall health.

One of the key factors used to determine whether a walleye population can sustain a consumptive fishery is the Catch per Unit Effort (CUE). It is determined from the number of walleye caught in 100 square metres of net in 24 hours. According to Makowecki, the AEP considers a CUE greater than 30 to be a stable lake, and a CUE of less than 15 to be collapsed. He believes AEP uses a “precautionary fisheries management style” and that these numbers are too high. He said CUEs of greater than 30 rarely exist and that CUEs of less than 30 exist for many lakes where walleye appear to be abundant.

In an e-mail exchange I had with AEP fisheries managers Park and Walker, they confirmed a precautionary principle is used, stating “One of the guiding principles of the Alberta Fish Conservation and Management Strategy  is ‘The precautionary management principle will be applied to the conservation and management of wild fish.’ This means where we have insufficient factual information, we will make management recommendations erring on the side of caution.”

With regard to CUE thresholds being too high, Park and Walker wrote, “Catch-rates, or more properly population density, are only one of a suite of metrics used to determine the sustainability of a walleye population. When considered with the other metrics, FWIN catch-rate thresholds are not higher than necessary.”

Walleye Abundance


How long has it been since you’ve been able to catch-and-keep a walleye without a special licence?

Concerning the observed abundance of walleye in lakes, Park and Walker expected anglers would begin to see catch rates improve as walleye populations recovered. However, they did not expect to hear that improved walleye densities were affecting the health of the fishery. They point out that walleye in remote un-fished lakes do just fine, with the other species in the lakes not at risk. Sure, they have seen some changes to lakes when walleye recover, such as spottail shiners declining and whitefish moving to deeper water. But “those should be considered normal responses to the recovery of the top predator in a lake.”

Keeping a Fish
One suggestion that received unanimous support at the meeting was allowing each angler to catch-and-keep one walleye per season at some of the lakes. Park and Walker stated this was possible “but for many lakes the sustainable harvest would be reached in a matter of days for small lakes (<1000 ha) or weeks for large lakes.” They went on to describe a trial in 2003 at Vincent and Long Lakes where the walleye populations had recovered after years of catch-and-release fishing. Anglers were allowed one walleye, any size. They took the annual allowable harvest of walleye in 2.1 days at Vincent Lake and 3.4 days at Long Lake. “In simple terms, most recovered walleye lakes can sustain a harvest of, at most, 1 walleye per hectare. Angler effort is usually 3 to 10 anglers per hectare.”

Makowecki believes there are too few biologists to gather the data necessary to set proper regulations for each lake. Unless lakes are adequately assessed, zero catch-and-keep limits could remain indefinitely on some of these lakes even though some have actually recovered.

So, are there underutilized walleye populations? That answer depends upon whom you believe. What is obvious to me is that the government biologists have failed to communicate adequately with the people who use the resource. As a result, many anglers no longer believe the biologists. That doesn’t bode well for the future of fishing in this province. Without trust and respect between anglers and biologists, little progress will be made to improve conditions.

Next Steps
The proceedings of the meeting were recorded and attendees filled out surveys to capture all concerns and potential solutions. Makowecki says the information will be summarized and the best solutions will be advanced to the AEP minister with the aid of local MLAs. He is hoping “the people will be able to catch and keep a walleye in all these lakes by April 1, 2017.”

Comments are always welcome (below).

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Fall Musings on Seasons Past

[Note: The following was first published in the October 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

As fall approached, I found myself juggling e-mail messages from my moose hunting buddies planning our annual calling-season trip. I’ve been drawn for antlered moose this year and there’s much discussion about where we should camp, who is going to bring what, and who should be my moose-hunting partner. Along with the e-mails, we’ve been passing back-and-forth digital maps of the area we want to hunt, maps easily made and modified using Google Earth. The maps provide relatively up-to-date information on the terrain, roads and trails, and thus where favourable hunting areas might be found. We can also mark on them the areas we want to look at. Once finalized, we’ll download copies of the maps to our smartphones and tablets that we can use when we are out of Internet access.

Paper versus Digital
All this reminded me how long our party has been at this moose-hunting business. I counted back and determined we’d been at it for 45 years. Some of the members of our party have changed but the party itself has been around for those many years. Of course, the Internet, e-mail and Google haven’t been around near that long. Indeed, in the early years the planning was done mostly over the phone and sometimes in face-to-face meetings.

paper digital maps

Maps come in many forms these days to help you plan your trip.

In those years we had to depend on paper topographic maps for information. We purchased them at outdoors or map-specialty stores at some expense. If we weren’t quite sure where we were going, we needed a lot of maps. Although the maps were accurate in terms of terrain, they weren’t up-to-date in terms of current roads and cutlines, some maps using 20 or more years-old information. So when we got on the ground, we often found things to be different, such as new development roads, pipelines and cutover areas.

We still use those paper maps, and they are good backups to have if digital gadgets fail, but we get a lot more current information from our digital maps. New forestry cut blocks, petroleum development roads, new and old cutlines all become evident from the Google satellite images. Granted, the data is sometimes two to five years old, but better than 20 or more years.

I also print out the digital maps in case there is a problem with the devices or it’s just inconvenient to use them. Battery power is always an issue with smartphones, tablets and GPS units. Sometimes it is quicker to look at a printed document and not bother with fumbling with screens that can be difficult to see in bright light.

All that said, I find myself taking a variety of navigation tools with me when I’m hunting. I’ll use the topo maps and tablet in camp and the truck, and haul my printed digital map, compass and GPS with me when I’m on the trail.

As I’ve mentioned before in this column, I think use of map and compass should be practised at every opportunity. Basic navigation/orienteering skills should be fundamental to using the other devices. Not only are they more reliable but also your skill in using them helps you understand what you are reading on your digital device.

Saving Memories from Data Rot

Moose camp, Berland River

Old photographs help preserve your memories, dragging up stories you thought you’d forgotten.

Going over 45 years of memories also causes me to go back and look at some of the photographs I’ve gathered over those years. Looking at old photographs is one of the best ways to rekindle memories, dragging up stories you thought you had forgot.

When I first started taking photographs as a teenager, the popular image medium of the day was 35 mm color slide film, Kodachrome or Ektachrome being the most popular. Before you could see your work, you had to take the exposed film to a lab; and a few days later receive a box of 2 x 2 inch slides, each slide encasing a frame of the processed film showing a positive color image. The slides were made to fit in certain projectors for viewing on reflective screens or walls. You could also make prints from them but projecting the slides was how the images were most often seen. I have a few thousand of these slides packed in metal boxes and stored in my cool basement. I store them that way because light and warm temperatures affect the inks in film and the colors change over time. Although the slides are ageing slowly, they are ageing. I’ve noticed slight color changes in the oldest ones and I’ve been scanning the most important slides to digital as I come across them.

Over time the popularity of color slides faded in favor of color negative film, such as Kodacolor. You did not make slides from this film but did make positive prints. Although I preferred slide film for my presentations and publications, I also took my share of color negative film and have albums full of prints. Like slide film, photo prints also age and should be protected from light and warm temperatures. You can scan the prints to digital but it is better to scan the negative; and photo-scanning software will turn the negative image to a positive digital one.

Which brings me to the present day when digital photographs are the main way images are recorded these days. I have an array of digital cameras for recording images in a variety of situations, and my digital library expands daily. So, my collection of photographs involves slides, prints and digital files. I transfer the slides and prints to digital on an “as needed” basis, but in the back of my mind I worry about the digital. The problem is that digital files also age.

It’s called “data rot” (“data degradation” or “data decay”), and occurs when the medium upon which you are storing the data (hard drive, flash drive, SD card, CD, DVD) degrades over time. Everything ages. Agents of decay include: warm temperatures; radiation from the sun, other light sources and background radioactivity; and pollution and oxygen in the air. These slowly change the chemical structure of paper, film and digital media. I’ve noticed some of the data files I’ve stored on old media have changed. Some of the manuscript files I wrote decades ago have been corrupted and many are unreadable. The colors in some photographic files have faded; details and sharpness have declined; and others just can’t be read anymore.

Another problem with digital is that the technology and media used also changes over time. Think of the floppy disk, the first medium used to store programs and data when personal computers first came on the market. Unless you have an old computer with a floppy drive, you can’t read those disks anymore. As well, newer software versions might not be able to read the files recorded under older software.

The way to fight data rot is to periodically transfer files to fresher more up-to-date media and software. This takes discipline and some time. It is also a good idea to make hard copies of important files as backups. Eventually, you have to decide what is really important to keep, not just for you but also for the people who will follow you and might want to know who you were and what you did. What media will they most easily be able to access and see?

Comments are always welcome (below).

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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The Capacity to Carry

[Note: The following was first published in the September 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

We’ve seen the signs on the sides of trucks specifying the maximum weight the vehicle can handle safely. Likewise, certain containers label the maximum volume or weight they can transport safely. We’ve also seen signs in auditoriums or theatres expressing the maximum number of people the room can safely hold. These maximums are the “carrying capacities” of these chambers and vessels.

The concept of carrying capacity is also used in population biology, including wildlife biology, to describe the maximum number of a particular species a certain prescribed habitat can hold without affecting the health of that population or habitat. For example, 100 square kilometres of prairie habitat might have a carrying capacity of 400 white-tailed deer. Now, one must keep in mind we are talking about capacity here, the maximum number the habitat can support. The actual population figure is most likely significantly lower as a result of many factors.

yarded deer

When snow gets too deep, deer yard-up, only going to a portion of the food available in their winter habitat.

The amount of food in a habitat is the chief factor used to calculate carrying capacity. Knowing how much food a deer or moose requires each day and comparing that to the amount of browse available in winter or green vegetation in summer can give you a rough estimate of the gross carrying capacity of that particular environment for each species. But of course, other factors come into play. There might be two species of deer competing for the available food. Likewise, moose and other animals compete with deer for certain foods. All animals compete for space, particularly if certain food items are found in small patches.

Another factor might be snow depth. Even though a habitat might have lots of good winter food, the snow depth can cause deer to “yard-up” and only go to the few areas where the deer fed prior to the snow becoming too deep for travel to other areas. The result can be that many deer starve despite the carrying capacity being high.

Time of the year is also important in determining carrying capacity. A habitat can support many more individuals in the spring and summer when a lot more food is available, and indeed that is when young are born and populations increase. In winter, however, there is a lot less food available and populations are lower as a result of predation (hunting), migration or disease/starvation. Hence the ultimate carrying capacity of a habitat is the winter one.

So, at first glance the concept of carrying capacity can seem quite simple but in practice quite complicated. Where the concept gets intense is when a species-at-risk confronts dwindling habitat. A case in point would be our woodland caribou. Now, I know I harp on caribou a lot in this column, but I feel our treatment of woodland caribou represents our true attitude toward our environment; that is, the caribou are nice to have as long as they don’t get in the way of our perceived prosperity (ignoring the fact that the caribou and our environment are part of that prosperity). And that is how we let the A La Peche and Little Smoky caribou herds go to the edge of extinction: we drastically cut the capacity of their habitat to carry them. Resource extraction companies were allowed to mow down critical caribou winter habitat (contiguous old-growth forests). The new government has realized this shortcoming and is attempting to do something about it. But its draft range plan for the two herds falls far short.

well site construction

Resource development sites and their infrastructure eliminate habitat and reduce the carrying capacities of many species.

Instead of increasing the carrying capacity for the caribou as quickly as possible, it allows logging and energy development to continue in “historic” areas. In place of increasing capacity by allowing a significant amount of habitat to develop, the new plan calls for 1) the wolf cull to continue, 2) the numbers of moose, deer and elk to continue to be lowered, and 3) the construction of a 100 km2 “caribou rearing facility” to increase caribou numbers under protected conditions, releasing yearlings to the outside where little new habitat will be available for them. If you don’t increase the carrying capacity of these areas, what’s the point?

Perhaps it’s time to admit defeat with these two herds. If maintaining our rate of resource extraction in these areas is so important, perhaps we should write-off these herds, wait until actual new habitat develops in 50 or more years and then repopulate the caribou with introductions from the northern herds where more protection is to be provided. If we’re not going to be serious about protecting these animals and their habitats, why spend all this time, money and effort?

Of course, I know why. It has to do with the so-called optics of the situation. The government doesn’t want to go on record as abandoning their responsibilities to a species-at-risk. So, culling wolves and building a rearing facility shows they’re doing something even though it’s not near enough to bring these herds back from the brink.

Human Carrying Capacity
Discussions about carrying capacity, especially among population biologists, often go to the “elephant-in-the-room” that few other people wish to discuss; that is, human carrying capacity. Just how many people can Alberta, Canada or this old Earth carry? As many know, the human population of the earth exceeded 7 billion not too long ago; and that population continues to grow, as the number of human deaths does not keep up with the number of births. Despite what some economists would have us believe, the human population cannot grow forever. There is a limit.

Eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote in his 2003 book, The Future of Life, that the gross human carrying capacity of the earth is around 10 billion people, provided that every bit of arable land on the planet is put into maximum agricultural production and all people become vegetarians (a lot more vegetarians can be supported than meat eaters). Of course, that’s not going to happen. Over the last few decades much cropland has been paved over, contaminated, and lost to climate change (e.g., desertification, floods, rising sea levels), and meat eating is an important component of many cultures.

As we approach or exceed our carrying capacity, life will not be that comfortable for more and more people. Indeed, we are already seeing this in terms of increases in worldwide poverty and violence, and the number of people migrating from distressed areas. So, what is a carrying capacity that will allow most people to live comfortable lives? Good question and there is much debate about the answer. Some believe it is 3.5 to 4 billion people, or the population of the earth back in the 1970s. Others believe it could be 5 to 7 billion people, provided we can maintain our current agricultural production.

One thing that is becoming obvious is that the denser our population becomes, the more people will see a degradation of their quality of life. We are already seeing that here in Alberta in terms of outdoor activities: fewer opportunities in fishing and hunting, overused wild regions, competition for space with resource extraction companies, and loss of species like the woodland caribou.

It need not all be gloom and doom. We can still make changes to ensure a better future for our children but we need governments to recognize the problems and make the hard decisions.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Recovering Grizzlies and Caribou

[Note: The following was first published in the August 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

I have often pointed out in this column, one of the chief sources of our problems trying to conserve our renewable resources, like fish and wildlife, is our ever-growing human population and its increasing demands on our environment. Two recent examples of how we are trying to cope with this reality are the announcements made this June about the province’s threatened grizzly bears and woodland caribou.

Grizzly Bears

grizzly bear tracks

Grizzlies are seldom seen because they prefer to avoid human activity.

On June 1, the province released a draft 2016-2021 Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan (to replace the Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan 2008-2013). The public had until July 15 to provide input to the plan, online through a survey. One thing that was not on the table for discussion was the resumption of a grizzly bear hunt. The government cancelled that hunt in 2006 and it is doubtful it will be reinstated any time soon. The Threatened designation for the species would first have to be removed and that won’t happen until the population increases substantially. And that’s not going to happen until the province gets a handle on all the habitat destruction and fragmentation that is occurring in grizzly range.

The draft plan looks at these issues, as did the 2008 plan. The difference is the draft plan is providing more detail. For example, the 2008 plan designated seven grizzly Bear Management Areas (BMAs) to tailor management to specific geographical units containing distinct grizzly bear populations. During implementation of that first plan it became obvious that access of motorized vehicles into the habitat was a chief factor in grizzly bear deaths (e.g., vehicular accidents, increased access for poachers, accidental shooting of grizzlies by black bear hunters, self-defence kills). So, each BMA was divided into Core and Secondary Zones to better manage roads and vehicular access. Apparently there would be more restrictions on motorized travel in core habitat areas than in secondary ones.

As well, since the publication of the 2008 plan, there were increases in the number of conflicts between people and grizzlies on private land adjacent to public land on the eastern slopes of the Rockies. So it became necessary to better define the BMA boundaries and divide the BMAs further into Recovery, Support and Habitat Linkage Zones, which crisscross the Core and Secondary Zones.

Confused? Well, I certainly am. These complexities of subzones are going to require a manager, enforcement officer or recreator to have a map and GPS to determine just where he or she is and what rules apply.

Another change from the 2008 plan is the downgrading of motorized access restrictions from Open Route Density Thresholds (which included trails as well as roads) to Open Road Density Thresholds (which would only include roads). In other words, there would be no restrictions placed on Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs) that leave the road. A motorized vehicle disturbs wildlife of all kinds, whether on a road or off, and indeed increases the chances of bear mortality. Off-road densities need to be established in the core and support zones. It seems those concerns have been put on the shelf. Why? If we are really trying to increase grizzly numbers, these densities need to be addressed.

The draft plan focuses a lot on reducing human-caused mortality and that is indeed important. The Bear Smart program would be enhanced and more specialists in human-wildlife conflict management would be hired to educate both bears and humans. This should reduce the conflicts and bear mortality, but that is just one aspect of grizzly bear management.

If we want these bears to increase their numbers, habitat protection and enhancement should be more front-and-centre in the new plan. However, that might mean the curtailment of some petroleum and forestry projects.

Woodland Caribou
On the heels of the announcement of the draft grizzly bear plan, on June 8 the government released a mediator’s report with regard to protecting woodland caribou, along with a draft range plan for two herds near Fox Creek and Grande Cache. Why a mediator’s report? It appears the government wanted to bust up a “policy logjam,” the previous government caused, with regard to meeting an October 2017 federal government deadline to file a recovery plan for the threatened species. Using a mediator to bring all the concerned stakeholders together and develop a mutually acceptable plan was a solution to break that jam. The government has accepted the mediator’s recommendations and states it intends to move forward with them.

The highlights of mediator Eric Denhoff’s recommendations include:

  • Protecting 1.8 million hectares of caribou range in northwest and north-central Alberta (Bistcho, Yates, Caribou Mountains and Chinchaga herd ranges).
  • Restoring 10,000 kilometres of “legacy” seismic lines in the Little Smoky and A La Peche caribou ranges.
  • Establishing a 100 km2 “caribou-rearing facility” in the Little Smoky range.
pump jack

Petroleum development and service roads are some of disturbances that affect the viability of grizzlies and woodland caribou.

Protecting the range in northwest and north-central Alberta is really a no brainer. It’s the “low hanging fruit” that previous governments should have “picked” a long time ago. If they had protected caribou range in the foothills outside of Banff, the Banff herd would not have been extirpated. Similarly, if they had protected the caribou ranges in northeast Alberta, oil sands development would have been a lot different and perhaps more acceptable to the world at large. What’s curious in this report is that there is no mention of how the northeast caribou ranges should be managed. Have they been written off?

The most controversial portion of the plan is the establishment of a 100 km2, fenced caribou rearing facility in the Little Smoky caribou range. The Little Smoky and the adjacent A La Peche caribou herds are perhaps the most precarious herds in the province (outside the oil sands). Over exploitation by petroleum and forestry have destroyed much habitat, exposing the herds to increased predation. The province has responded by waging a war against the wolves in this area and lowering the numbers of moose, elk and deer to curb predation on caribou. As I have stated before in this column, I would favor a temporary wolf cull if 1) habitat protection and restoration occurred at the same time and 2) no poison was used. It appears the government has finally got the message at least concerning habitat restoration. The wolf cull will continue but efforts will begin to restore habitat.

But is it too late? The reason I ask is that you know a population is in trouble when you go to extremes to maintain it. The expensive wolf cull and now this expensive experiment in fenced-rearing are indeed extremes in managing wildlife, indicating to me that it may be too late to save this herd. I hope not. I hope we can bring the Little Smoky herd back. But I have hunted in that area and know there is a long way to go.

Alberta is truly at a crossroads with these two plans. Both plans illustrate how difficult it is to balance a healthy economy with a healthy environment, as demands increase on both. The two plans stress the need for consultation between stakeholders and governments. The real difficulty comes in making the trade-offs that ensure long-term benefits for all. If we want to see grizzly bears or indeed hunt them, we might have to give up motorized access to certain areas. If we want to see caribou on the landscape, we will have to better manage and indeed curtail our resource extraction.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Recovering Fort McMurray

[Note: The following was first published in the June 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

As I was writing my June column, the forest fires west of Fort McMurray flared and invaded the city. My daughter was living and working there and of course was part of the evacuation. Fortunately, she lived on the south side of town and did not have to endure much of what many had in order to leave the city—none-the-less, a very stressful time for all involved, including we outsiders who were waiting for word about loved ones caught in the crisis. As of this writing our daughter is safe with her family in our home, and for that we are grateful.

Over the last few days, we have been hearing many stories of courage and generosity on the part of so many people. What was particularly amazing to me was how 88,000 people were successfully evacuated from the city with no loss of life to the fire. As Albertans, we should be very proud of our fellow citizens, especially first responders, who stepped into the fray and ensured the safety of all. We should also thank the many people in communities across the province who opened their homes, businesses and community centres to the evacuees, ensuring everyone had a place to shelter and decompress. As well, the Alberta and federal governments deserve praise for not hesitating to bring the resources needed to safeguard citizens and fight a monumental fire. I have never been more proud to be an Albertan and Canadian.

Charles Lake

The author’s daughter Joanne with a northern pike she caught out of Charles Lake north of Fort Chipewyan.

As a result of all this, I lost my focus on the subject I had been writing about, and instead decided to discuss what Fort McMurray has meant to me over the years and why I think she will recover. While listening to CBC radio’s excellent and continuous coverage of the catastrophe (much appreciated by evacuees and their families) and waiting for Joanne’s text messages describing where she was in the long line of evacuees driving south on highway 63, my thoughts drifted to the many experiences I have had at Fort McMurray over the years.

The first time I visited was in the mid-1970s when I worked for a biological consulting firm on a major gas pipeline project in the Arctic. We had hired Contact Air, out of Fort McMurray, to provide us with planes and pilots to fly aerial surveys of caribou and muskoxen along the proposed pipeline route. I had the good fortune of flying with one of Contact’s owners, the legendary Jack Bergeron. Jack was quite a character and he made the many hours we spent in his airplane anything but boring. He taught me a lot about bush flying, and perhaps most important, navigating in the Arctic. We had many adventures I won’t forget.

Because our surveys were based out of Resolute Bay, NWT, I only visited Fort McMurray once during that time, and unfortunately didn’t see much more than Contact’s hangar at the airport. At that time, Fort McMurray was a town of just a few thousand people with oil sands development just getting underway.

I had a better look at that town several years later when I drove up with a group of fishing buddies to fly into some lakes on the Canadian Shield north of Fort Chipewyan. If memory serves, Contact Airways flew us into those lakes (although I believe Jack had moved on to other adventures flying wildlife surveys in Kenya). At that time, we spent a night at a hotel in town and were able to do a little looking around before our flight the next day. The town was obviously growing and thriving as more petroleum companies were realizing the oil sands’ potential. We visited the local sporting goods store and picked up some lures. I remember the affable owner regaling us with stories of the legendary fish we were going to catch. Sure enough, we indeed caught many large pike and lake trout, and saw some amazing country.

Heritage Park Shipyard, Ft. McMurray

Fort McMurray’s Heritage Park reminds visitors that the city is much more than petroleum development. It includes a shipyard museum where historic dredges and other river boats are on display from a time when the river was a major means of getting supplies to northern communities.

I returned to Fort McMurray over the next few years to fly-in to other lakes on the shield with various people interested in seeing what the north could provide in terms of adventure and excellent fishing. We either flew out of the Fort McMurray airport to Fort Chipewyan, where a floatplane waited to take us to our lake, or we flew from the floatplane base on the Snye waterway in Fort McMurray directly to our lake. Each trip was a special adventure that embedded many fine memories in my mind.

On one trip I took my young daughter Joanne along so that she could have a taste of northern Alberta. This too was a special trip, made even more so by seeing my daughter catch some really big pike and wrestle with them while waiting for her old man to take pictures. You can’t put a price on those memories.

Now, over the last couple of years, it was Joanne who showed her mother and me around the ever-growing Fort McMurray: the new state-of-the-art airport, the Oil Sands Discovery Centre with its oil-sands tour, Heritage Park with its displays showing visitors that the city has a long history; and where to eat, where to sample craft brews, where to walk dogs and hike trails. We came to know the city pretty well, and met some pretty interesting people along the way.

So, it was with a heavy heart that we watched Fort McMurray take the hit it did during the first few days of May. What many who haven’t visited the city do not understood is that Fort McMurray is so much more than just “an oil town,” where you come to make your fortune. It is also a gateway to some magnificent northern country and adventures, and a vibrant community of people who want to make social and cultural, as well as financial contributions to society.

That is why I got upset when I read about some recent, insensitive social-media postings about Fort McMurray “getting what it deserves” from the fire because of the contribution oil sands development makes to global warming. Anyone who regularly reads my writing knows that I’m a firm believer in man-caused climate change; and yes, the oil sands operations add to the problem. But so do we all! Every time we drive our vehicles, fly in airplanes, heat our homes, lubricate a hinge or buy something made of plastic, we emit carbon and create the demand that causes the oil sands to be developed. Yes, we need to reduce carbon emissions, the sooner the better. But until we do so without catastrophically upending our economy, we will be using oil and gas. As well, we will be challenged by more catastrophic wildfires and storms. We can’t stop them from coming, but we can learn to deal with them and reduce their consequences.

Of course, the crisis in Fort McMurray is not over and there is much work to do. But it will be done. People will return and rebuild their lives. Fort McMurray will be different but I can’t help but feel it will be better. Its citizens will have a new unifying sense of themselves that will spur the city along. We are all facing challenges in this new world forming around us, and Fort McMurray will show us how to be resilient.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Finding Our Way

[Note: The following was first published in the May 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.


First Place, Magazine Column
Outdoor Writers of Canada
2017 National Communications Awards


We shared Eskimo Tea under tarps wrapped around our two snowmobiles. We had boiled the tea on a small stove we’d hauled for the purpose. What made it “Eskimo Tea,” as described by my Inuk partner David Nanuk, was the two tablespoons of sugar spooned into each cup. David insisted there was no better way to have tea in the Arctic, and after the day we had had, I had to agree.


On the arctic tundra, Inuit experienced in traditional skills can find their way from the orientations of these hard-packed snow ridges (in this case, Mapsuk).

The early June day had started out nice enough, as we tracked a herd of caribou to its calving ground as part of a study of caribou movements in relation to a proposed gas pipeline. After a few hours spent watching the herd from a blind in some rocks, David interrupted my observations to inform me a storm was approaching and we should get back to camp. The approaching clouds from the west didn’t look too threatening; but after several weeks on the tundra with David, I had learned to respect his knowledge.

Sure enough, as we made our way back, following the faint traces of our morning tracks across the wind-blown, hard-packed snow, we suddenly found ourselves in a whiteout. Everywhere we looked all we could see was white — no distinction between sky, ground, or any sudden drops or hard objects ahead. Indeed, I nearly ran into David’s snowmobile as he stopped to suggest we wait out the storm.

So, we tied the tarps around us and boiled the tea. The wind and snow blew hard, shaking the tarps and making me realize how vulnerable we were, exposed to what nature could throw at us. Although we each wore parkas and insulated pants to keep warm (David in traditional caribou hide, me in modern down-filled cotton and nylon), it was obvious we needed to get to better shelter if we were going to survive.

Finally after a couple hours, the wind subsided, the land became distinct from the sky, and we decided to continue on our way. My problem was how we were going to navigate under the low overcast sky that obscured the sun and landmarks. David told me just to follow him, and of course I did.

Wrottsley River Camp

Our camp on the Boothia Peninsula in early June was often fog bound.

Now in those days (the 1970s) there was no GPS and a magnetic compass was useless because we were close to the magnetic pole. I carried a cumbersome solar compass that could determine direction from the position of the Sun in the sky, provided you knew the latitude and time of day. It was difficult to use but accurate. However, on a sunless day, it was also useless. I had no idea what David was using because our tracks from this morning were gone. He kept driving ahead and I followed. In a few hours our camp appeared out of the fog and cloud.

When I asked him that evening how he knew which direction to follow to find our camp, he said he was following what his father had taught him about the hard snow ridges we bounced across throughout the day. They indicated the direction of the prevailing wind or that of the hills and other obstructions redirecting that wind. I asked him how he could put all that together over the considerable distance we travelled. He said, “You have to live here.”

I was reminded of that experience when I read an article in the New York Times about some scientists trying to preserve “The Secrets of the Wave Pilots” (March 17, 2016). The piece described the legendary Polynesian sailors who first traversed the vast expanse of the Southern Pacific Ocean over 2,000 years ago. They did so without a compass or other instrument and very few landmarks. Yet, they regularly traveled over the horizon to the next island using techniques that have, until now, defied scientific explanation. Today, less than a handful of the people who occupy those islands have the knowledge of those “old ways” to navigate. These scientists sought out one such sailor to prove the validity of the technique and preserve it from extinction.

Much like David using the snow ridges, wave pilots use the complexity of ocean waves to determine the direction to be sailed and the proximity to land. They do so by sight and feeling the swells of more subtle waves through the hulls of their sailboats. To learn these techniques, the pilots have to serve long apprenticeships under elder master pilots. The scientists believe that such skills are a combination of learned and inherited elements.

Most wildlife species, especially those that migrate, have ways of orienting themselves with the planet to find their way back home or indeed fly thousands of kilometres to breeding or wintering grounds. The methods vary, depending on the species. Some use the earth’s magnetic field, others the position of the Sun or Milky Way. Whichever method they use, the information is used to calculate their position on mental maps handed down through the generations in their genes. For example, some populations of the monarch butterfly migrate from Mexico to Canada and back again over five generations. Each generation only lives long enough to make a portion of the trip but passes along the map of the trip to its offspring to complete the next portion, and so on.

Smoky River Valley

Until GPS units became commonplace, we depended upon our mental maps to orient ourselves with landmarks, the Sun or the direction North indicated by a magnetic compass.

We humans might have similar “dead-reckoning” capabilities handed down to us through our genes. For example, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been lost; i.e., not sure how to get back to my vehicle or camp. In all cases the Sun had been obscured and I had been involved in tracking an animal through the bush. Without the Sun I had been “momentarily confused” until I took out my compass and determined that the route I was following was a wrong one.

When we have a point of reference, like the Sun, a landmark or a compass to point north, we can recalibrate our mental map and picture in our minds how to “get back to camp.” Each recalibration strengthens that map and our ability to use it. We most likely received the format of that map from our ancient ancestors who depended on such a map for their survival and indeed our own existence. Although we pass that map format from generation to generation, elders must teach each generation how to use it, or the knowledge of it could be lost. For example, David told me that much of the knowledge he had learned from his father about living off the land in the Arctic was not being passed to people younger than himself because they had been taken from their families to go to residential school in Yellowknife at the age their fathers would have passed that knowledge along.

Closer to home, many of us no longer carry or know how to use a magnetic compass or find north using the stars. We’ve come to depend upon mobile devices, like smartphones and GPS units to find our way. As a result, few of us get lost but we’re also not using our mental maps like we used to or passing on such knowledge to our children. That could be a problem if our devices or the systems that support them should fail. Perhaps we should be learning the old skills as well as the new.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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